“Volunteer” can mean a few very different things.  This is something I have only learned of late.

Volunteer #1 is planning a fundraiser. She uses her professional contacts, her graphic design skills, her project managing abilities, and her finesse with a budget. Her intellect is being volunteered as much as her time.  She attends quarterly meetings to  review the plans and coordinate with the other volunteers, and also works on her own time to complete projects. She is an event planner in her professional life, but here she gives it for free.

Volunteer #2 is busy and ruddy cheeked. She is serving macaroni and cheese to lunchtime visitors at the shelter, and can barely keep up with the plates coming her way. She smiles and says hello to each guest. She is tagged out of her station like a relay-racer and given a broom and instructed to sweep the kitchen, until her replacement comes exactly an hour later to send her to her next gig, wiping down tables with vinegar and a rag and collecting the used plates. At the end of three hours she is tired, flushed, and sated.

Volunteer #3 is an hourglass full of wet sand. Her hands are cracked from the dry air and the dirt covering everything she has touched. She has looked at the clock seventeen times in the past two hours. She wonders if the sun will ever kiss her face again, or if she will disintegrate in this place where dreams go to die. She feels she has been in this hellhole for an eternity. Dust coats her lungs. Misery coats her spirit. Everything is hideous. She shuffles around the thrift store like a labotomized Cukoo Nester, carrying broken plastic hangers with wide-wale stained cordoroys dangling  like a broken arm swinging at the wrong angle. The clothing looks suicidal. The artwork and posters hanging crooked on the wall look ashamed to have been created. She wonders why she is  here – or really, why anyone is here. The orphaned objects start to close in on her. Time stops and her eyelids stick, dry with dust.

So today I had the pleasure of experiencing scenario #3. Shall we take a walk down memory lane? (Photos courtesy of Amy Carniol, my partner in the eighth ring of hell.)

Exhibit A: My hands at the end of two hours, covered in the soot of discarded belongings and forsaken dreams.

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Exhibit B: Hangers. Hangers. An elephant graveyard of plastic hangers.

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Exhibit C: Even JFK looks like a lazy-eyed Simpsons character in this forgotten pit

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Exhibit D: Why is this a thing??

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Much as I loathed the hours I volunteered in a community thrift shop today, it did make me think about the act and art of volunteering. Before moving to Philadelphia, all of my volunteer experiences were of the #3 variety – #2 only if I was really lucky, as I was  at the University Community Social Services – aka the Meatloaf Kitchen – which was a wonderfully run volunteer experience, which I highly recommend to anyone still living in NYC. The key point in there is that it was wonderfully run – something which I think a lot of places overlook. They think that if they have a shortage of help, and then get people to come help, then all will be solved. Hole + plug = plugged hole. Boom – move on.

Unfortunately, what I have seen more and more, as I’ve become more sensitive to well and poorly run volunteer experiences, is that there is so much more work that needs to go into it. Your volunteers need to be greeted; they need to be given specific tasks, with clear outcomes, and a timeframe for doing them. You need to have lots of tasks lined up, in case they finish, because wandering around aimlessly when you’re there to give your services for free feels really, really bad.

And that doesn’t even touch the iceberg of how you get those volunteers, or how to retain them once that one project finishes. The recruitment of volunteers is also a complicated task unto itself – getting folks who have specific skills, for specific projects; getting them to have some ownership over what they’re doing. I think the thing that made today particularly painful was, while it was boring and asthma-inducing, it was also depressing to spend four hours in a place where I was totally expendable and not needed. They had no real jobs for me; they are just used to having volunteers come sometimes. Everything would have been exactly the same had I not been there  (except the pants would not be hung on the crease and color coded, but hey, who’s counting). So I think the second thing, on top of being well organized and having many tasks lined up, is to also see whether you can match the task to the volunteer’s skill, so that they feel proud of and invested in their work.

This is particularly on my mind for two reasons: this week I will lead my first meeting of the all-volunteer-based Marketing Committee for the Civic Association, and next week will be the first Young Friends meeting. In other words, I will have over twenty-five volunteers on my hands, looking for a #1 experience. That means I need to figure out their interests and talents, and plan tasks ahead of time to make sure they feel they’ve been given direction, without being given a directive.

Thinking more about this, I decided to look in the news for “engage volunteers” to see what experts had to say on the topic. Apparently I’m not the only one who noticed this pattern – and noticed that it’s a problem. According to a really great piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, titled “The new Volunteer Workforce,”

Nonprofits rely heavily on volunteers, but most CEOs do a poor job of managing them. As a result, more than one-third of those who volunteer one year do not donate their time the next year—at any nonprofit. That adds up to an estimated $38 billion in lost labor. To remedy this situation, nonprofit leaders must develop a more strategic approach to managing this overlooked and undervalued talent pool. The good news is that new waves of retiring baby boomers and energetic young people are ready to fill the gap.

That is a huge – and very expensive – problem!

So why do volunteers leave, they ask? Usually it’s due to one of the following:

  • Not Matching Skills & Assignments
  • Failing to Recognize Volunteers’ Contributions
  • Not Measuring the Value of Volunteers
  • Failing to Train 
  • Failing to Proivde Strong Leadership

From that list, my gut tells me to focus on these three things (#2 is my own): 1) provide strong leadership 2) emphasize the opportunities to make  friends while volunteering, 3) find ways to publicly recognize the work of excellent volunteers and quantify the results of their contributions.

But I’m open to suggestions, and fired up. Are there other things you would focus on, based on your own volunteer/leadership experiences?

Apart from having volunteers on my mind because of my impending meetings, I realize as I read on in this article that part of this has to do with another personal question right now. At the moment, I am a professional volunteer. I volunteer actively with five different organizations, and spend approximately thirty-five hours a week just on volunteer projects. So far I enjoy this more than any other job I have held. If I could continue doing this as my job ad infinitum, I would. I am helping people; I am doing many different things, with different groups, but all with the aim of helping people in my city who lack resources and need support. This is my dream job; flexible, meaningful, varied, with opportunities to be creative, and lead. The only problem is I’m paying to do it.

On top of that little snag, there is also the feeling when I tell people about my volunteering that they see me as an idle lady who lunches, or some premature retiree with fat pockets and a heavy watch full of too much time. The response is more “well, isn’t that nice that you have the means to be able to just volunteer a lot,” and less “how interesting – tell me more.”

Apparently this, too, is noticed by those other than myself. The Stanford piece asks,

Why isn’t volunteering more respected? Why aren’t more organizations investing in volunteering? One problem may lie with the term itself. The word “volunteer” doesn’t say anything about the nature of the service provided, except implying that it is free. It is often assumed that something free is not valuable. Maybe we should use different words—like fundraiser, project manager, or legal counsel—that describe the work performed and help erode outdated ideas about the value of the volunteer workforce.

Volunteerism also suffers from being thought of as something that is nice, but not necessary. When people think of volunteers, they often envision people spending a day cleaning up trash or planting flowers—projects that are helpful, but not essential. If the volunteer had not planted those flowers, would the nonprofit have paid someone else to do it? When nonprofit leaders see that volunteers can do highly skilled work that the organization would have otherwise paid for, volunteering will begin to get some respect.

This really hit home for me. Should volunteering  your professional services be called  by the same name as  rehanging sagging tweed suits for three hours? They are so different, that I think I agree that they should have different titles. But then, what would those be?

Let me ask this – when, and why, have you volunteered? What motivated you to do it? Did you do it consistently? Why, or why not?

I think volunteering replenishes the spirit and provides opportunities for altruism, which as creatures we crave. But I also know that even when people do things out of the goodness of their hearts and out of concern for other people, they won’t  necessarily continue doing it; when I’m working with schools ,I always call this asking your teachers & staff to “run on fumes”: the expectation that people will always go above and beyond, taxing their own resources, out of the goodness of their hearts. It doesn’t mean that their hearts harden or rot – but people reach a limit at which point their personal reserves are spent, and they start to say no where they once said yes.

(And a good friend of mine recently posed the question,”can true altruism really exist?” I like to argue yes – but I understand the no.)

So keeping this in mind – how can I (and consequently the organizations I work with) elevate volunteering & make it a sustainable, desirable part of people’s lives, without tainting the nature of the volunteering itself?

One of my favorite sayings is “the only true charity is anonymous charity”; if we emphasize that volunteering  can help you to make valuable connections & gain skills, does that introduce self-interest in a way that would make it more like charity-with-your-name-splashed-all-over-it?

For you, what would be the hallmarks of a volunteering position that you would make a regular part of your life?


3 thoughts on “Volunteering

  1. Justine, this is wonderful and insightful and definitely I will share with my boards, organizational partners, and more. I’ve been a professional volunteer a lot in the last two years, sometimes while unemployed, sometimes while employed in short bursts on decent paying projects, and now as someone who found a part time job that makes ends meet and allows me to continue to explore all of the things I do for free, many of which I am exploring doing for money.

    I have often headed of perceptions by saying “I’m like a lady who lunches, but without the doctor husband and his bank account.’ It was really up to anyone to figure out whether I was sitting on an inheritance or saving money by living next to a methadone clinic and baking my own bread, and I never said which. I can imagine clarifying if I thought it was important to the relationship, although that never occurred. (Plus people are often more considerate if they think you’re loafed, at least if you’re dealing with non-profits angling for a slice of it.)

    All of that to say, on that issue, I think its up to you to define what it is you do, and whether you revel whether it’s as a consultant, employee, skilled volunteers, or whatever.

    Also, 100% kudos on noticing that non-profits need to do a much better job engaging and appreciating volunteers. What should be common decency ends up being to their financial benefit anyway.

  2. Pingback: Tree Huggers | Civicization

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